After a little over ten years running the Nikon Imaging Center at UCSF, I’ve decided to take a job in industry. On March 6th, I will start work at Zymergen. DeLaine Larsen will take over as director of the NIC. At Zymergen, I won’t be doing much, if any, microscopy. Instead, I’ll be learning a lot and working to help them with their strain optimization efforts. It’s bittersweet to be leaving – I’ve really enjoyed my time at UCSF and I love microscopy, but it’s time to move on and to try something new. Here, I want to say a few words about why I’ve decided to leave UCSF, with the goal of hopefully shedding some light on the challenges of running a core facility that might be of interest to someone considering this career path.
Why am I leaving UCSF? In many ways I’ve been very successful: the NIC is financially stable, widely used by the UCSF community, and highly regarded both inside and outside UCSF. In 2014, I was awarded an R01, enabling me to start my own research group. Despite that, I’m leaving UCSF because I don’t feel like I have a lot of room to grow here and because I think that if I don’t leave now it will be very hard to find a non-microscopy, non-academic job – I’ll be too old and too identified with microscopy.
Interestingly, one reason I’m not leaving UCSF is salary. While I’ll make about 10-15% more at Zymergen, it’s not wildly different than what I make now.
I’m moving away from microscopy because it’s not clear that there are that many career opportunities for someone who is a microscopy expert. I spent a good chunk of the last year talking to people in industry about industry opportunities for someone with my expertise, and I didn’t find many options. However, I did not want to leave the bay area, I didn’t want a job that required much travel, and so I never considered working at one of the microscopy companies. That said, I don’t think microscopy expertise is as valuable as say, expertise with antibody engineering, next-gen sequencing, or CRISPR.
For me to grow at UCSF would require either expanding my research group or for the NIC to keep adding new equipment and technologies. I don’t think either is likely, primarily due to funding constraints. A key issue is that I am on a 100% soft money position. That means that UCSF doesn’t provide any money to pay me – I have to raise the money necessary to pay my full salary plus the cost of all my benefits. I also don’t have a startup package – my lab (two postdocs plus 25% of my salary) is funded solely by my R01. I wanted to write a 2nd R01 last year, but I was never able to find the time to collect the preliminary data required for it – my postdocs were working on the funded R01, and I was too busy to do it myself (I’m not willing to spend 60+ hours/week in lab – I want to spend nights and weekends with my family). So growing my research group didn’t seem practical.
Growing the NIC is more likely; however UCSF doesn’t provide any support for the NIC either, aside from internal grants that we have applied for and been awarded from time to time. For the last ten years, Nikon has provided financial support to the NIC that, in recent years, covered about 30% of our operating expenses. They also supplied the majority of the microscopes we have in the NIC. However, Nikon is parting ways with UCSF, and so neither of these sources of support will continue. That means that our primary way to acquire new microscopes will be writing shared instrumentation grants, but this is a slow process (total time from writing the grant to receiving the equipment can be 2 years, assuming a resubmission of the grant is required). Furthermore, the shared instrumentation grant mechanism primarily supports the purchase of commercial off-the-shelf instrumentation, making it very hard to develop new cutting edge instrumentation this way.
Finally, the way we fund the NIC is through a recharge, where users of the imaging center pay for scope time. With the Nikon gift ending, 75% of my salary would be funded by this recharge money. Personally, I found funding myself off of recharge to be psychologically corrosive – I feel like I should account, financially, for every hour of my time. This really conflicts with my desire to be collegial. For example, is it right to spend my time (paid for by users of our microscopes) to teach a graduate course that only benefits a small number of students? I now charge researchers at UCSF for help with their own microscopes and for help with image analysis. Should I also bill a colleague who asks me to read a draft of their paper?
Lest this be perceived as a rant, let me say that I have really enjoyed my ten years at UCSF. I’ve learned a tremendous amount and have had a lot of fun doing it. The faculty have been tremendously supportive of me and I’ve always felt like a valued member of the community. That said, I think there are real problems with soft money positions, and I would advise anyone taking a 100% soft money position to think hard about whether it is a good move. Also, if you want to specialize in being a microscopist, you may want to consider whether it will provide you with the career opportunities you may want later.